Keeping It Real With Mr. Marcel: Marcel Quinones

by Anna S., 15

As a high school student, Marcel Quinones was a disaster. Even though he was on the football team, even though he was Mr. Popular, nothing pained him more than going to school. Each day he came home not to a loving and supporting family that had reminded him to bring lunch money on his way out that morning but to an addicted, unreliable single parent. Left drowning in his sea of neglect, Marcel found a lifeboat in the dangerous streets of the Bronx, New York. Instead of doing homework or hanging out with classmates after school, Marcel was selling drugs. 

The Bronx had always been his world. It had also been the world of his next-door neighbor, one of the city’s biggest drug dealers and an addict. So when he turned his life around and began living outside of the Bronx, he showed Marcel a different path to tread. And when they played basketball in the mornings and went on odd jobs outside the city, Marcel wanted to take his first steps forward in a new world.

Today, Marcel Quinones is the Youth Program Manager for Lunch Break, a nonprofit organization based in Red Bank. He runs its Alliance for Success Program, with workshops and mentors to guide rising high school juniors and seniors to post-secondary success and happiness. Mr. Quinones oversees everything related to Lunch Break’s youth, and his daily duties range from coordinating kids cooking classes to putting out fires during those classes.

“I don’t think I would have ever imagined being able to sit here all these years later and still do what I do,” Mr. Quinones admitted. 

After all, he is today the very person who could have helped his younger self implement positive changes in his life much sooner. His life’s work has become the very answer to the prayers of his youth. A change as radical as this—a bright future compared to his beginnings—did not come overnight.

At first, Mr. Quinones thought he had found his calling in early childhood education, for which he went to college. During this time, however, he also worked part-time in a shelter for homeless teenagers. From there, he never looked back. For over twenty years since then, he has been working closely with homeless and at-risk youth.

The career path Mr. Quinones chose for himself would inevitably have its ups and downs. Unfortunately, not all the many children he has worked with made it to the future he hoped for. Mr. Quinones has seen the young people in his care be murdered, lost to the street, and killed by drug overdose; he has had to bury children that were under his wing. Because each child’s circumstances were so unique, Mr. Quinones couldn’t expect to have a guidebook that told him exactly how to handle each of their situations. 

This is not to say that nothing has come of Mr. Quinones’ career; it is quite the opposite. He has seen many young people go from homelessness to college graduation, marriage, and more. He has seen them accomplish things that many outsiders, and in some cases they themselves, didn’t believe possible. In addition, Mr. Quinones is particularly proud of the two residential buildings he created in Asbury for homeless teens.

For all the work Mr. Quinones has done for young people, they have certainly given back to him. This is mostly in the lessons they teach without knowing it, and Mr. Quinones was the most impacted by their resilience. In 2012 during the height of Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Quinones lost everything. He and his family had to relocate. During this time, however, he was still going to work, and he couldn’t help but be amazed at the heart and the strength that surrounded him.

“What hit me was they already had their Hurricane Sandy a long time ago when they ended up on the street when they ended up homeless,” he said. 

“And by seeing them continue to fight, they motivated me to fight. And they were able to sort of knock me back to reality. And because of that, I give them all the credit in the world for me getting through that situation because I realized I needed to take it on a chance, stand up, dust it off, and just keep going, you know like they do.”

Mr. Quinones’ initial goal had been getting kids off the street. Now, at Lunch Break, he is striving for a prevention approach. One of his favorite things about the organization is its flexibility regarding resources and exploring ways to help people. Lunch Break and its executive directors are not quick to say no to things. In the words of Mr. Quinones, the organization’s general attitude is, “If it can help someone, let’s try it.”

Lunch Break’s open-mindedness allows Mr. Quinones many ways to support young people, ranging from setting up paid summer internships to allowing them to go on college campus tours. However, arguably the most important part of his work is their shoulder to lean on. While his many years of experience with helping at-risk youth is an asset to him in connecting with struggling teens, his childhood experiences are the key to understanding their needs and mental states. 

Mr. Quinones has been in the place of the children he helps today. Although his childhood was a dark time, it connects him with those in his care today. He understands their struggles and complaints more than anyone. Though he wants to do everything in his power to help them, he does not feed them lies of false hope about their situations. He presents what is in front of them and promises to do everything he can to help them. 

As many of the kids he has helped have said, “Mr. Marcel kept it real.”